By Claire Smith
As Sewanee students, faculty, and staff quietly checked their emails on the morning of Tuesday, September 8, many came across a momentous letter from the Board of Regents. That day, the Board of Regents released a brief statement on the history of inequality and racism at the University of the South, acknowledging for the first time that the University “was long entangled with, and played a role in, slavery, racial segregation, and white supremacy.”
The statement concluded that the “University of the South categorically rejects its past veneration of the Confederacy and of the ‘Lost Cause.'” The regents asserted that the compelling task of our time is to understand and repair the damage inflicted upon Black people by slavery, exploitation, and intergenerational racism. To further this goal, the Board of Regents also pledged to draw from the scholarship of the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation.
The statement included links to two important documents that further develop the concepts laid out by the Board of Regents: a research summary on the history of the University of the South by the Roberson Project, and a letter from the vice-chancellor with a list of seven initial priorities for advancing inclusion in the University.
Dr. Woody Register (C’80), director of the Roberson Project, and Rev. Dr. Benjamin King, professor of Christian history in the School of Theology, authored a summary of the findings of the Roberson Project to guide the Board of Regents’ statement. The summary evolved out of a collaboration between Register, King, and Dr. Jody Allen of William and Mary, when they taught a summer class this June in the School of Theology on race, the Episcopal Church, and the University of the South. The course allowed the professors to collaborate more intensively than they could before, and Dr. Register remarked that it “propelled our thinking and conception of how we would tell the story of the history of the University.”
This course also coincided with the Black Lives Matter protests of this summer and the growing concern across institutions on their role in racial inequality. Additionally, Sewanee approached two important landmarks this summer: the beginning of Dr. Reuben Brigety’s first term as the first Black Vice-Chancellor of the University, and the 55th anniversary of Black Alumni at Sewanee.
King said that while he and Register fleshed out their understanding of the University, the Regents, too, were re-evaluating: “And I think also this crisis [of racial inequality in the United States] was something that the Regents just couldn’t ignore. The Regents were looking for, I think, a richer understanding of the history in this University on the questions of race.”
The Regents asked Register and King to present their findings to the Board in June. From there, the Regents decided to write a statement on the history of the University and Lost Cause, and they asked Register and King to write a timeline to guide the process. By September, the timeline had morphed into a nine-page summary of the Roberson Project’s findings, though Register said this was still a “skeletal version” of the history of the University.
On the project summary, Register said that the key takeaway is that “The movement to found the University was a movement by people who were leaders in an expansive but defensive slave society. That shaped the vision of the University, that shaped the fundraising for the University, and then it remained a central theme in the life of the University once it opened after the Civil War… The University, small as it was, played an outsized role in the conversations and policymaking affecting race relations in the South and in the United States as a whole.”
Along with the historical background of the research summary, the Board of Regents’ statement also included a letter from the vice-chancellor. In this letter, Vice-Chancellor Brigety outlines seven initiatives that the University will commit to in order to become a “model of diversity, of inclusion, or intellectual rigor, and of loving spirit in an America that rejects prejudice and embraces possibility.”
The steps include redoubling efforts to recruit students, faculty, and staff from historically underrepresented communities, continuing work with the Roberson Project, improving curriculum and pedagogy to address race and the history of the University, and appointing a campus commision to evaluate the names of buildings and monuments on campus.
Nicky Hamilton (C’99), director of community development in the Office of Civic Engagement, said that it was important for the University to address its history, as real change in racial inequality or approaches to reconciliation can only come after acknowledging the past.
“The University really did need to come out and acknowledge its role in slavery and the Confederacy,” Hamilton said. “Reconciliation means you are admitting to a wrong, admitting to a sin, and then you are asking for forgiveness, and then there’s restitution for that sin, and then you reconcile.”
Echoing Hamilton’s remarks, King asserted that the University can learn about truth-telling and reconciliation from its Episcopal identity: “We’ve got to do the truth-telling part, and I think we’ve also got to talk about restitution — what do we who have so much privilege have to give up? What do we need to talk about in terms of making amends? But nonetheless, as an Episcopal priest, I have to believe that reconciliation is ultimately possible. We have this notion that we can only move forward if we forgive one another. And again, in order to be forgiven, we’re going to do a lot of hard work first.”
Now that the University leadership has made clear its understanding of its history, the campus as a whole can move forward with those more difficult steps that come before reconciliation. Hamilton recommends that students, faculty, and staff look for ways that they can enact the statement and incorporate the vice-chancellor’s initiatives into their own work and life on campus.
“Of course leadership matters because these initiatives have to be resourced, and we need resources to be able to make these changes, but I put this question back to you,” Hamilton said. “As a student, how do you see yourself helping to advance those seven initiatives currently?… We all have agency and an onus to contribute to the climate of this campus and to advance the University and fulfillment of EQB.”
Throughout conversations on the Board of Regents’ statement, Register, King, and Hamilton all highlighted the role that Black leaders in the University had in advancing racial equality. Hamilton pointed to the leadership of Vice-Chancellor Brigety as the source of more deliberate efforts to address racial inequality.
“The VC said that his presidency will be consequential, and I believe him. Already in the short time he has served here, we’ve seen a lot of things move. I think we are moving faster than we’ve moved in a long time in Sewanee… and so this is just helping to speed it up, having Dr. Brigety as Vice-Chancellor,” Hamilton said.
One can also look to the pioneering efforts of Rev. Joseph Green (T’65, H’10) and Rev. William O’Neal (T’65), who crossed the color line and pushed Sewanee to follow through on its commitment to integrate when they became the first Black graduates of the University of the South. Though the Board of Trustees had voted to desegregate the school of Theology in 1952, by 1959 when Green and O’Neal enrolled in the summer program, there School had had only two Black students and no Black graduates.
King said that the story of the University’s integration is often “a white story about white trustees and white clergy and white faculty at the School of Theology. What is splendid is that the first African Americans who actually chose to come here made their collective decision that this place needed to be integrated. So even though the policy was that African Americans could come here, you know, it would have taken an enormous amount of courage, actually, to come here.”
Vice-Chancellor Brigety and Dean Jim Turrell present Rev. Joseph Green’s portrait. Photo courtesy of Buck Butler.
Green was honored on Tuesday, September 15, with a portrait in the lobby of the School of Theology, commissioned through the class gifts of the classes of 2017 and 2019. Those on campus can look to Green’s portrait as one of many changes in representation and inclusion, but there are many initiatives already under way that students can join. Hamilton pointed to initiatives in OCE like the 213-A Project and Dialogue Across Difference as ways that students can be proactive and involved in racial diversity and inclusion on campus.
Register and King also emphasized the key role students can play in the success of the Roberson Project. Students in both the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Theology can contribute to the Roberson Project, but they can also support the project by reading and amplifying its research, and discussing new developments like the Board of Regents’ letter. “I would hope that more students would digest the information, think about it,” Register said, “that the Roberson Project would be something that gives students institutional pride, something they tell their friends about.”